Group seeks better cable in east Howard Residents claim service is inferior and too expensive

September 30, 1992|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

They have their MTV, but they want more.

How about Bravo and American Movie Classics? Or Home Team Sports without shelling out an extra $13.95 per month?

Insisting the cable television company serving western Howard offers a superior product, a group of dissatisfied eastern Howard residents has united to press Howard Cable TV to improve the quality of its programming and service.

The Alliance for Better Cable (ABC), formed in late August, says that Mid-Atlantic Cable of Western Howard County provides better programming at a lower cost, and that Howard Cable TV has been "unresponsive to individual subscriber requests for better service."

"They seem to make corporate decisions that don't respond to our concerns," said ABC member Richard F. Kirchner, 66, a resident of Hickory Ridge in Columbia.

"We're still in an age of deregulation. There's not much anybody in the county can do as far as getting some action with the local company. We want to raise the consciousness level of people in the county and try to bring group pressure to get things accomplished."

The group has about nine members and is "beginning to hear from other people with similar concerns," Mr. Kirchner said.

Tom Beach, Howard Cable TV general manager, said the company offers good channel selection for the price and boasts a strong service record.

Congress approved legislation Sept. 22 that would impose price controls, as well as quality standards for programming and service on the industry that was deregulated in 1984. But President Bush has threatened a veto.

"We're hopeful the legislation will correct some concerns we have," said Mr. Kirchner. "Some of our concerns about excessive future rate increases we feel would be checked by re-regulation. There will be more enforcement of poor service problems."

He added that the legislation might not have much effect on the programming that's offered.

Howard Cable TV serves about 43,000 subscribers in the Ellicott City, Columbia, Laurel, Savage and Elkridge areas. Mid-Atlantic serves 2,700 subscribers from Homewood Road near Columbia to the western border.

Mr. Kirchner, a retired state government administrator, said Howard Cable TV is "loaded with a lot of inferior channels." ABC's founders say they want to see such channels as Bravo and American Movie Classics included as part of the system's basic cable package instead of channels featuring paid endorsements or pay-per-view options.

The group also claims that cable television reception is sometimes poor and system outages occur frequently.

Mr. Beach said the cable system does not have capacity for adding new channels, but the company would consider adding American Movie Classics if expansion occurs in the future. Adding channels requires physical adjustments to 900 miles of cable, he said.

"We have been able to increase the capability in the past, but it's not something we can do easily," Mr. Beach said. "There's just not a switch we throw and have new channels available."

About one year ago the company added Nostalgia and a pay-per-view channel, he said. Channels could be added by replacing existing programming, but not without disturbing some customers, he said.

"We feel we have a very strong lineup," said Mr. Beach. "We feel everything on there has a lot of value. We don't like to remove things that have value. We just like to add."

Mr. Beach said most outages occur because of disruptions to the underground cable system, such as road or housing construction, not because of equipment failure. Most of the system was developed about 15 years ago.

The company, Mr. Beach said, responds to individual service interruptions and corrects them within 24 hours 95 percent of the time. The company seeks to upgrade and expand its system continually, and has recently begun installing fiber optics, which improve reception, he added.

ABC member Edward T. Weitzel presented the Howard County Cable Advisory Committee a comparison of rates of the two companies at a Sept. 16 meeting.

As of Oct. 1, Mid-Atlantic will charge $17.28 monthly for basic 22-channel service, and $28.31 for a 49-channel package.

Howard Cable TV charges $27.25 monthly for 40 channels.

Mid-Atlantic offers Home Team Sports as part of its 49-channel service, while Howard Cable TV charges $13.95 per month for the premium channel that features regional sporting events, including Orioles games. Premium channels Home Box Office and Cinemax cost $12.95 per month from Howard Cable TV, and $11.50 from Mid-Atlantic, Mr. Weitzel noted.

"The rates for everything at How

ard Cable are higher," said Mr. Weitzel, 65, of Ellicott City, a retired real estate site selector. "There's a pattern there."

ABC's price comparisons "aren't really valid" because the two cable companies structure their services differently, Mr. Beach said.

"There are differences in equipment offered for one price," such as remote control converters, he said. "They compared some things that weren't apples to apples."

The company is willing to meet with ABC members, he said.

ABC members say county government and the cable advisory committee appear to have little influence on Howard Cable TV.

"Nobody can tell the cable company what to carry and what not to carry," said Jim O'Connor, cable administrator for Howard government.

Mr. O'Connor said his office has fielded many requests for additional channels, often targeted for a specific group, such as a Spanish language channel.

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